Just recently, on Monday, January 22, Ursula K. Le Guin died.
I have grieved her since, perhaps surprisingly, since it was only in the last year that I really discovered—and fell in love with—her work. Previously, I was ambivalent at best to Le Guin’s fiction. As a child, I read Catwings with delight; when I was assigned Wizard of Earthsea in college, I found it forgettable. And then, sometime in my mid-20s, I tried to read The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps her best-known work. It didn’t go well.
For even when we accept the strangeness of her novels, Le Guin’s work is unsettling. In describing our world, she exposes it.I didn’t warm to the characters in The Left Hand of Darkness at all. The story opens with a conversation about a border dispute between the countries Karhide and Orgoreyn, and I had difficulty appreciating the abstruse political machinations of a far-flung world. One of the main characters, Estraven, is described as cool and inscrutable, and so I found him to be. Stranger still to me was Le Guin’s creation of a third gender. On the planet Gethen, where the story is set, people are neither male nor female; they are androgynous, until, once a month, they enter kemmer, or a state of sexual arousal; then they may, if they choose, adopt either a male or female form for the sexual act itself. Those who have adopted the female form may get pregnant, and so it was that, several chapters in, I was pulled up short when the book announced that “the king was pregnant” (99).
That was about where I stopped reading, the first time. It was not that I objected to the book on moral grounds. I have a degree in English, I teach college literature, and I am used to reading books that deal with sex. Rather, it was what C. S. Lewis might have called the “abiding strangeness” (13) of the novel that stopped me. I found the characters, and the place, odd, their lives very different from my own. I could not connect, much the way that a climber in the Arctic has difficulty gripping a smooth, vertical sheet of ice. There was simply nothing to hold onto. And so, I returned to the book to the library and thought that my interest in Le Guin was finished.
I could not have been more wrong.
This past May, I received a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for my birthday. I accepted it graciously, telling the person who gave it to me that I looked forward to trying the book again. Try again I did, and this time, I found it no less strange, but also wondrous and compelling. Only a few months later, I followed it up with The Dispossessed, and this book I loved. Far from being strange, her characters are now very human to me. Their problems and worries are ours; their loves are ours as well, and I see myself, and others, and the world in which all of us live, in Le Guin’s writing.
Le Guin herself writes that her “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive” (xii): in other words, it aims to reveal, through story, something important about the world and the people who live in it. Le Guin adds that if the novel works, if it’s “a good novel,” then when we finish reading, “we may find . . . that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before” (xv–xvi). The analogy is revealing. Streets and faces are both familiar to us; yet in seeing a new face or crossing an unfamiliar street, we also encounter something strange; it is, then, the element of strangeness in science fiction that changes us, as it allows us to see ourselves, and the world we inhabit, in a new and different light.
Of course, Le Guin allows, “it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed,” since “the novelist says in words what cannot be said in words” (xvi). Yet I have found that there is something for us to learn from reading Le Guin and encountering her strange new worlds, and I want to put something of that into words here.
For even when we accept the strangeness of her novels, Le Guin’s work is unsettling. In describing our world, she exposes it. She asks us to acknowledge, and sometimes to change, the assumptions and practices woven into the fabric of our society. In doing so, she places great hope in the individual human spirit, in our freedom and our power of moral choice.
This was immediately obvious to me this summer when I re-read The Left Hand of Darkness, which wrestles with (among other things) the question of what it means to love one’s country. There is in the United States today, and I believe in other nations as well, an apparent allegiance to the old dictum, “My country, right or wrong,” an effort to champion her policies and to seek her profit, regardless of the harm those policies and profits have on others, and even on her own citizens.
This, Le Guin’s novel suggests, is a not a new way of being patriotic. It is a persistent feature of human political activity. Written in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness is prescient on this point. The novel follows the adventures of a human envoy, Genly Ai, to the planet Gethen, with its two countries, Karhide and Orgoreyn. Estraven, one of the main characters, is banished from Karhide because he seeks to pacify relations with Orgoreyn; anything short of warmongering is perceived as unpatriotic. Any action taken that benefits Orgoreyn, even if in doing so that action ultimately benefits Karhide as well, is unpatriotic; any action that benefits the planet Gethen instead of Karhide alone is unpatriotic. As the mad king Argaven insists, patriotism must be “Karhide first!” (294).
This is a sadly accurate description of patriotism in our current period. In the suspicious, me-first policies of this strange and far-away world, we readers recognize a certain kind of patriotism at work in our own civilization, and perhaps more clearly in the story than in real life, where our sight is muddied by the slow progress of time, we can see its flaws. The “Karhide first” policy threatens the Gethenians’ chance to join the Ekumen, an interstellar planetary alliance, and thus jeopardizes its opportunity for its civilization to flourish, financially and culturally.
This way of patriotism is also immoral. Estraven, asked over dinner whether he hates the Orgoreyn, at first responds, “very few Orgota know how to cook.” More seriously, he adds that he does not so much hate or love a country as know it: “I know people,” Estraven says, “I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills.” He asks, “What is love of one’s country? Is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing” (212).
All these are deep questions, but if The Left Hand of Darkness is deep and troublesome, The Dispossessed is (I believe) more troublesome still. In some ways, I find it harder to write about The Dispossessed, for I loved it more, and as Le Guin says, who can put words to that? Yet ultimately, The Dispossessed calls into question not our ways of being patriotic but our very ways of being human, and it calls us to change.
The point is that human beings have the power to change, regardless of the social mores or traditions which seem to bind them . . . The story is set on the twin worlds of Urras and Anarres: the first world lush and prosperous, with growing cities and established universities, the second a desert, a revolutionary nonauthoritarian collective where people work and learn and make art, but in relative poverty.
It is immediately obvious that Urras is more comfortable. The physicist Shevek, visiting Urras from his home world of Anarres, notes the abundance of the wealthier planet; it has “enough air, enough rain, grass, oceans, food, music, buildings, factories, machines, books, clothes, history” (228). So well-off is Urras that late in the novel, a character from Earth describes it as Paradise. In fact, Urras is a kind of beatific vision for a capitalist society, for while it has the ordinary social troubles of “human injustice, greed, folly [and] waste” it also has “beauty, vitality, [and] achievement” (347); we are told that even the poor are comfortable, their necessities met. Such stability and wealth is indeed heavenly, to Le Guin’s original readers and to readers today; we hunger for a world as cultured and comfortable as Urras.
Yet the novel warns that if we chase the heaven of Urras, we will arrive in Hell. Shevek, having noted the abundance of Urras, notes too its shallow depth, compared with Anarres. At a party thrown by the Urrasti glitterati, he admits that Anarres “is an ugly world,” with its landscape “all dusty and dry hills” and its people with “big hands and feet.” Yet this is nothing to Shevek; he continues: “Everything is beautiful here [on Urras]. Only not the faces. On Anarres, nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces” (228). It is significant that the faces of the Urrasti people are not beautiful, for our face is the emblem of our humanity; what Shevek is saying is that the pursuit of wealth and abundance mars the human spirit more than simple poverty may do, at least when (as is the case on Anarres) that poverty is borne in solidarity with other human beings.
On Earth, the pursuit of wealth mars humanity more than we often care to admit; think, for example, of the children working in sweatshops to produce the jeans and blouses and shoes we purchased last weekend at the department store, or the 60-something grandmother working the night shift in Amazon’s warehouses to make sure that gummy bears we ordered arrive promptly. True, we are not Urras; our poor are not adequately cared for; but the problem remains the same. In making our world more beautiful, more comfortable, and rich, we make the people who live in it uglier.
We make ourselves uglier as well. Shevek observes, “There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, or fear of loss, or the wish for power” (346). This is the blackest of all condemnations of Urras. Comfortable it may be, but it cripples people’s ability to make truly moral choices.
It is a condemnation that stretches to our society as well, for we too are tempted, and sometimes compelled, to make decisions not because they are right, but because they are financially sound. We go to college, or not, because it makes financial sense; we take a job, or not, because of its compensation, not because it is the right fit for us. Even faith has been tainted by profiteering, as preachers with coiffed hair promise (falsely) that if we only pray more, dream more, give more, we will be wealthy.
Yet there is hope; what Shevek’s observation implies is that if we sweep profit and power out of the way, we may regain our power of moral agency. This is not to say we will always make the right choice. On Anarres, where there is no opportunity to profit financially, there are plenty of people who make immoral choices. The point is that we will be free to choose.
Nor, Le Guin insists, do we need to wait for our society to turn up a nonauthoritarian collective before we may regain that agency; freedom is available to those who choose. A traveler, hoping to return with Shevek to Anarres, to experience its collective society, asks, “If each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?” (385). The point is that human beings have the power to change, regardless of the social mores or traditions which seem to bind them; although such things can, and will, interfere with a life rightly lived, we may choose to change those traditions and make something good and meaningful out of our lives.
Le Guin, of course, was not a Christian. Yet her writing describes what should be familiar to Christians but is too often strange: the significance and worth of the individual human soul. She asks us, her readers, to stop worrying about our prominence or our power or our pleasure, for when these are out of the way, she promises, we will “know what it is to come home” (The Dispossessed 334).
Near the end of The Left Hand of Darkness, the Gethenians approach Genly Ai with a request: “Will you tell us,” they ask, “about the other worlds out there among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?” (300). It is a poignant request, and fitting, for Le Guin herself tells these stories. She tells us about other worlds, about other kinds of men and women; and in telling these stories, she helps us understand our own lives better.